Leader Advice: Don’t Move the Foxhole

By | February 5, 2021

[February 5, 2021]  I learned this important leadership lesson the hard way.  My Infantry unit deployed to Ft. Pickett, VA in the late summer of 1983 for a “shake down” exercise.  As Platoon Leader, I placed our crew-served M60 machinegun on our right flank and had my men dig in. My commander didn’t like the placement and told me to move the foxhole 10 feet to the rear.

I was a new lieutenant but not a new soldier.  I knew the ramifications of his order. First, moving the foxhole (correctly called a fighting position) really pissed off my men.  It had taken them more than six hours of backbreaking labor digging the position and camouflaging it.  Now, their work was for nothing and they would have to re-position the gun.  Time was wasted, sleep was lost, and my men knew it.  Their morale took a hit.

Second, moving the foxhole helped our soldiers to lose respect for our commander.  His reputation was already poor and my platoon knew I had the correct machinegun location.  Their stereotyping of army officers as over educated, inexperienced, uncaring dweebs was reinforced that officers are only interested in furthering their careers.

Third, when our commander told me to re-locate the fighting position, it was a clear message that our unit’s leadership really didn’t care about the soldier.  Uncaring leaders are the worst example of leadership in action.  When an Army officer doesn’t care about his soldiers, everyone knows it, everyone’s job is now just a job.  Motivation is lost.

I “ordered” my men to relocate the foxhole. But, I told them their job was to critique my ability to dig a machinegun position by myself to military standard.  I started to dig.  Midday in the summer in Virginia is hot and humid.  As I dug, first one sergeant, then another picked up a shovel and began helping.  As word got out, more soldiers arrive to assist.  Soon I was asked by one of the machinegun crewmembers to stand aside to let them finish.

I stood there amazed.  These young Infantrymen, many not yet 19 years old, understood something profound.  Leadership means taking responsibility for your actions.  In their eyes, I showed them that I took full responsibility for the commander’s orders and was willing to back it up with action.  Once they knew of my commitment, it was time for them to be part of the solution.

Their morale had been restored and their respect for officers improved.  One of our new privates said, “Sir, we know you mean well, we know what to do, please make sure everything else goes well; we’re counting on you.”  Wow, what maturity?  When I began digging the new gun emplacement, my intent was to finish it.  My effort was not for show.  You can’t fake credibility and my men knew it.

Of course, the foxhole is a metaphor for any task assigned by any leader.  My advice to leaders is, don’t move the foxhole.  Don’t move it and don’t change it, especially if a move is unnecessary or if it does no harm where it is located.

Author: Douglas R. Satterfield

Hello. I'm Doug and I provide at least one article every day on some leadership topic. I welcome comments and also guests who would like to write an article. Thanks for reading my blog.

26 thoughts on “Leader Advice: Don’t Move the Foxhole

  1. Lynn Pitts

    I really loved this article. Certainly takes me back to my military days as well. Anyone who has spent any amount of time in the military develops this ability to immediately recognize real leadership from those who are faking it.

    Reply
    1. Capital Pattern, Inc.

      I really liked this special article by Gen S as you did, Lynn. While I’ve been a regular reader of this leadership blog for a few weeks, this is my first post. Help get the word out.
      😀

      Reply
  2. Willie Shrumburger

    LEAD FROM THE FRONT, this is what LT Satterfield did at the time. He is telling us (hitting us in the face with it) that jumping in and doing the job in such a situation works, and works fantastically well. Gen. S. was showing how to get the job done in difficult circumstances. Read and learn from this example.

    Reply
    1. Dead Pool Guy

      This is where learning as a junior officer (or sergeant) is rewarding later in your career. Many never learn it.

      Reply
      1. Joan Alda

        So true. Today’s young adults have no idea what they are getting themselves into.

        Reply
  3. Don Snow

    This article is tied closely with your previous article on ‘leader advice.” Ties in well with the theme of your blog that leadership is difficult and he is an example how to fix a problem of leadership created by someone else.

    Reply
    1. Cheryl Bee

      I’d like to see more like this in the near future. Great website, Gen. Satterfield. 🇺🇸

      Reply
  4. Valkerie

    Thanks General Satterfield. You have given us something to think about. I really do appreciate your blog.

    Reply
  5. Silly Man

    Learning leadership lessons the hard way is a good thing for a young leader. You have, then, a tendency to remember them. I’m sure these lessons stayed with you throughout your career and you were able to pass them along to other junior officers.

    Reply
  6. JT Patterson

    Your three points are well taken:
    1. Morale is lower.
    2. Bad stereotypes are reinforced.
    3. Motivation is lost.
    These are key to understanding that real leaders must overcome these. And, the easiest way is to lead by example, just like Gen. S. did when he was a new lieutenant.

    Reply
    1. corralesdon

      Nice summary, thanks JT. Yes, these are important to overcome. They are, however, a bit overlapping and maybe there are more lessons we can learn from it. What would they be?

      Reply
  7. Otto Z. Zuckermann

    “Of course, the foxhole is a metaphor for any task assigned by any leader. My advice to leaders is, don’t move the foxhole. ” Best line in this blog post. But of course, many will not understand. Writing for the lowest common denominator is not the way to go here. Well done, Gen. Satterfield.

    Reply
  8. Yusaf from Texas

    Good article, Gen. Satterfield. Once again, you have not disappointed us.

    Reply
  9. Rev. Michael Cain

    Great story. You were leading when you started to dig the foxhole (oh, fighting position for the M60 MG). That is what real leaders do. You solved the disrespect problem and corrected your men’s perception of officers. Great example you set. More stories like this, I know we will all just love.

    Reply
    1. The Kid 1945

      I do think, Rev, Cain, that Gen. Satterfield is starting a new string of articles. Looks like to me that he might want to incorporate these into a book in the future. Now, what could it be??? Maybe “10 Trinkets of Advice in Military Form.” Nope that won’t work. But you all get the idea.

      Reply
      1. Stacey Borden

        I think the word ‘analogy’ is what you are looking for but this title is not worthy, IMO.
        “20 Rules for Life.” Oh, that was Jordan Peterson’s book title. But we all get the idea.

        Reply
    2. Eric Coda

      Yes, I too loved the story. Why? Simple, its entertaining to a point but easy then to remember the story and thus the message as well.

      Reply
  10. Army Captain

    Great advice and, of course, I can truly appreciate the analogy.

    Reply
    1. Georgie B.

      Ha Ha, I bet you do. “Fighting Position,” the army certainly has a way of making more with words. You would think they would make for shorter descriptions. But alas, the word smiths of the world all work in their documents section. Oh, wrong again, these are only second stringers. The real wordy bureaucrats work in the government.

      Reply
        1. Sergeant Craig

          Fun times here on Gen. Satterfield’s leadership blog. Great stuff here. What do you guys think? I’ve been on a while but this is my first post. It’s not easy finding a good site that is so straightforward and entertaining as well.

          Reply

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